We've probably all heard this ad nauseum by now: Marketers need to invest more into content. But before we dive into that, let's take a step back and talk about content at its basic level.
What has become nearly a buzzword in its equivocalness, “content” applies to everything from the snippets of information and images in your Facebook News Feed to the recommended long-reads in your email newsletter (not to mention that newsletter itself). Content is the reason people go online. Audiences can now tailor their own content experience by selecting what shows up on their social feeds and building a 'read later' list as headlines catch their eye. But with the right analytics and distribution tools, content creators can get ahead of readers’ habits by finding out where their ideal audience hangs out online, what they’re interested in, and begin to strategize accordingly.
Think of the Internet in its nascence as your traditional, door-delivered Sunday newspaper: a pile of newsprint, bound and bundled into a singular news source. Once upon a time, people logged on and went to a website’s URL, clicked around the homepage a little bit, and probably didn’t read much more beyond what was on that website.
Then came social, which brought with it a proliferation of sites and blogs disbursing themselves around the Internet. If you go on Twitter to see what’s happening at the Oscars, you might also decide to follow a tweeted link to one commentator’s predictions of the outcomes, then follow a link from that article to another publisher’s opinion, and finally end up reading a piece on that site about Broadway shows. Audiences follow the path of their interest wherever it may lead, arriving to websites via individual pieces of content far more often than the homepage.
Your newspaper—and all the ‘newspapers’ out there—have been unbundled and streamlined. There’s an endless network of content and countless opportunities to guide eyes to it. It’s more important than ever that content creators generate as many access points as possible to their content for interested audiences.
To reflect on how these platforms and technologies evolved to satisfy our collective hunger for content, let's take it back to Bill Gates, ca. 1996. Even then, when the Internet was in its infancy, Gates foresaw some of what lay ahead:
Now that we're past the days when logging online was a chore and streaming video was a fantasy, some things remain true: companies have seized the opportunities that lie in developing digitally-specific content strategies. Reader interaction is part and parcel of nearly any piece of content; and, perhaps most perceptively, readers grow exasperated with ad bombardment.
Among the basic facts of life altered by the Internet—besides the little things, like the survival of cable networks and finding your soulmate—is audiences’ responses to advertising. As readers began spending large chunks of their days online, more and more of their time and attention became available to advertisers, especially relative to when options were limited to primetime TV, print newspaper, and highway billboards. As advertising on the internet matured, audiences began to expect advertising, in and of itself, to have purpose: interesting information, valuable advice, or a few minutes of entertainment. Old methods of advertising are simply no longer enough to engage audiences.
This is why companies began to invest heavily in social media, venture into blogging, and create a tidal wave of video ads. Quality content marketing—a combination of strong brand and editorial strategies—gives audiences value before they ever become customers. You can present yourself as an expert in your space, create trust with potential customers, comprehensively impart your brand persona, position, and voice. Moreover, you can elicit an emotional response to instill affinity. Content gives brands an opportunity to build a consumer base by promoting themselves in their audience’s natural online environments, giving readers the sense that they discovered new products and services organically.
One thing that Gates didn't include in his premonitions: the dominance of social media and mobile, which built an entirely new access point to content via sharing and in-network interaction. Now that everyone carries the Internet in their pocket via smartphone, even more entries—and advertising moments—exist. Rather than finding quality content through the “front door” (i.e., a site's homepage), a series of side doors, basement doors, and large windows are being added. Brands and publishers need to pay attention to that construction to adapt accordingly.
This decoupling of individual content from publishers has had profound implications in the way readers find and engage with content. Instead of receiving all of their content from one or two publishers (probably their local newspaper and one big national publication), readers can now find the publisher whose editorial voice and authority is most appealing to them for each of their distinct interests. This fundamental change has forced publishers to double down on their editorial voice and focus content creation on the specific topics for which audiences value them. As a result, we’re seeing publisher audiences narrow into highly specific and differentiated demographics.
These structural changes have had a massive impact on publisher business models. Before the Internet, and definitely before social media, publishers enjoyed a relative monopoly on their audience. As the Internet arose, publishers replicated their business model on websites, putting ads around content in the same way as print, and selling to the same advertisers. This was the genesis of the display advertising world. As the internet grew, more and more websites sprung up and the number of display advertising units available for purchase grew exponentially. As the supply of display units rapidly approached near-infinity, the price for those units plummeted. In conjunction with this increase in supply, we had the rise of social media and the inevitable advertising that went along with it. Now, instead of being forced to buy display ads to reach their desired audience, advertisers could also buy on social networks, which reduced the demand for the display ads on publisher sites, further dropping the price for those units.
As these structural changes have materialized, publishers have been forced to innovate and establish new advertising formats that better align with this brave new world. The rise of branded content has coupled advertisements and content more tightly than ever before, and publishers have found a way to monetize their specific editorial voice (and the audience that comes to them for that voice). Now, the content itself is the ad, instead of the means by which to get readers to an ad.
One of the biggest changes brought about by branded content is in the way we understand content performance. We’ve seen the rise of various metrics beyond clicks and uniques needed to show how impactful a piece of content actually is: how long are people actually staying on the page once they’ve clicked through? How far into the video are they watching? How many are compelled to share it with their social networks, and how many people within those networks find the link worth clicking through? The industry-wide discussion around the rising importance of these engagement metrics is a sign of the sea change the ecosystem is experiencing.
Meanwhile, for marketers, branded content has been a major source of advertising investment, as they’re finding value in the coupling of content and advertising. Since the content is the ad, brands can tell their story and push readers into awareness or consideration in a way that display ads never could. As the format matures, marketers are looking for deeper metrics, striving to quantify and understand the impact these branded content ads are providing. There’s no doubt that content is the future of advertising, and it has rapidly become an essential (and growing) component of advertising campaigns. However, there’s still work to be done in helping marketers measure the value of all the content they’re creating.
Maybe we should be saying “Content is President” instead. It's clearly been appointed by popular vote.